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Making it big with a market stall

You can’t really walk through a busy town these days without being tempted by a gourmet burger, a string of handmade noodles or a vegan-gluten-and-nut-free-organic slice of pizza straight from the oven, right? Street food has spread far and wide in the UK, but with so much competition, how can you make yours a success?

From the perfect time to start, to what to do before you open your doors, we spoke to three successful food stall owners to get some small business advice…


In the current climate, starting any food stall from scratch is tough. We’ve spoken to those who are already on that journey (Bao, The Ribman and HotBox) – at different stages – to find out how to take your business to the next level, without expanding too quickly.

What do your customers want?

One of the first ways to get a business right is by finding out what your customers want. Starting out in markets around London, Taiwanese steamed bun specialist Bao made sure they tweaked as they went: “We didn’t wait until we thought we had the formula or final product and then start, we just wanted to get going and get our product out there. Continually perfecting and honing our recipes is something we still love to do,” says founder Shing Tat Chung.

For the long-established Ribman Mark Gevaux, the same rings true: “We didn’t start as street food. The first idea was selling the baby back ribs as a butcher at farmers markets. Then I started cooking up samples on disposable barbecues and people loved it. Once they tasted the ribs, they wanted to eat it there and then. I wanted to cook because they wanted to eat it.”

You KNOW the score today #SundayIsRibDay

A photo posted by Mark Gevaux (@theribman) on

Customer just sent me this - it's the Ribman special from @honestburgers OH MY DAYS

A photo posted by Mark Gevaux (@theribman) on

The power of social

Easily accessible social media has been crucial for raising awareness of this kind of street food culture: “It’s been huge – I love it”, says Mark, who has 19,000 followers and counting on Twitter: “I wanted to get onto an event and they were asking for a website, so I built one. They asked for my Twitter handle, so I got one. If I had known how much it would have done, I would have done it years ago. On days when I’m running out, I’ll tweet that I’m down to two trays and see the queue get longer.”

The same was true for Bao: “We were doing pop-ups and markets, which meant that we were moving around a lot. The only way for people to keep up to date with where we were trading was social media,” says Shing. Basit Nasim, founder of American BBQ specialist Hotbox, agrees that it’s a fantastic way to communicate: “If people know who you are, people can interact and we can convey what we do. Instagram is so important for us, as meat photographs really well – even on iPhones you can get good quality photos. The quality of the images dictates whether people come and check you out.”

This photo was taken exactly one year ago. We're one year old now! Woop

A photo posted by B A O 包 (@bao_london) on

Monday is always a Guinea fowl rice day ? @jw_garrison

A photo posted by B A O 包 (@bao_london) on

Other helpful tech

As well as social platforms, other tech has played a significant part in making sure that businesses on the move stay up-to-date: “Weather apps are so important,” says Mark. “If you don’t keep an eye on the weather, you can do some serious damage. I got battered by the rain on Brick Lane and I nearly went out of business. With Radar, you can see the clouds and what time they’re going to hit London – and get good at it.”

Time to expand

But expanding from stall to multiple stall, or permanent stall, is tricky. Shing remembers: “When we opened our first site, it was a huge challenge. A whole different infrastructure was needed – and to put the pressure on us even more, we couldn’t run out of food. It is a big challenge, a commitment in both time and money. Think about how the product translates from a market stall to a sit down restaurant and think about the vast and varied details that come along with that. Take a holiday before you open.”

Basit uses the OpenTable app to help him manage: “I can monitor how many guests we’ve got. The biggest challenge in expanding is you go from a few variables to a hundred. And if you can’t see what’s going on, things get complicated,” he says. He also warns that you have to be realistic with money: “When you take on a site, you need to understand how much it will cost to get it to you the standard you want. I know I overspent on so many things I didn’t need to. I didn’t know where you could save money – so speak to people in the industry.” Other apps such as Office 365 from O2 can help you manage your business as it grows, allowing you to share information across multiple devices and truly work on the go.

Listen to good advice

Along with the challenges that come with taking the next step and expanding the business, there are additional challenges that come with the popularity of the street food scene. Mark comments that it’s harder than ever: “It’s tough out there. Getting a good pitch is difficult, especially now. All the good ones are either taken or really expensive.”

  • But, it’s not all doom and gloom. These four key pieces of advice from Mark will start you off, or help you expand:
  • Find an original name. Whatever name you come up with, Google it. You don’t want to start out on the wrong foot.
  • Don’t go steaming money straight away. If I’d got everything I wanted at the start, I’d be out of business. Keep it streamlined. Keep it simple.
  • Start in the winter. Anyone can do summer. If you start in the winter and get through it, you’ll know you’re ready.
  • Be honest with your customers. You’ve got to be. There’s no hiding there’s no escaping. I like to be honest and tell them what’s going on.

Keep these points in mind, and you’ll be one step closer to making it big with your market stall.

For free, impartial business tech help and advice, why not book a session with an O2 Guru? They’re available online, in store and over the phone.

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